On a Saturday morning in September, 2010, my younger brother Austin took out a handgun I hadn’t known he owned, told his wife to call the police, and gave her a special password with which to identify him. “They’re coming for me,” he said, “but I’ll keep you safe.”
At least, that’s the story his wife told us at the time. From there, details get a bit hazy, but the facts are these: my brother brandished a firearm. He was delusional—the password was invented, as was the threat he believed imminent—due to a combination of narcotics abuse and undiagnosed mental illness. The police arrived at his middle-class home in a Birmingham, Alabama, suburb. My brother was eventually disarmed and transported to a local hospital’s psychiatric ward. No one was harmed, a fact my sister and I celebrated later. “Thank God he didn’t hurt anyone,” I said when she called me that afternoon, never once worrying that it might have been my brother who was hurt.
Here’s another fact, one that I have come to believe determined how the morning’s events unfolded: my brother was white.
In 1993, seventeen days before my junior year in high school started, my father took a new job, one that moved us to Alabama from Knoxville, Tennessee, where I had spent the previous five years in a homogeneous suburb on the city’s west end. If you’d asked me about diversity, I wouldn’t have understood the concept really, though I would probably have offered some sort of lip service to it, one based on knowledge gleaned from books.
Social divisions were just starting to shape my consciousness in overt ways, and my distinctions were largely based on class. That summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath during slow Saturday morning shifts at my job. I worked the desk at the at country club where my father was the tennis pro, giving members sports drinks or soda, taking their sweat-soaked towels, and, I sensed, generally pleasing them with my studiousness. That summer I’d begun realizing (albeit slowly—it would take three long-distance, letter-saturated years before I could fully articulate it) that for the first time in my life I genuinely loved someone, that he seemed to love me back, and that even though in school we were peers and classmates, this great love of ours would never blossom because, trite as it seemed, we occupied different spheres: his father was a member of the country club where my father and I worked. I never saw the first love there, but his brother would sometimes come in for a soda, and while I don’t remember him being condescending, each time I handed him the cool aluminium can, I felt my face flush with shame.
But these realizations dawned slowly, and at sixteen, I was happy. I loved my Knoxville high school—a small neighborhood school that allowed students to eat lunch indoors or out, offered a fifteen-minute break from classes each day for socializing, and permitted the yearbook staff to cancel an entire day of class each spring so that we could congregate and exchange signatures. Each semester, students who made the Honor Roll for the first time were recognized at a school-wide assembly, where they were given a sweatshirt with the school seal. (Yes, my public high school had an official seal.) We wore those sweatshirts with pride; twenty-three years later, mine still comes off the shelf each fall, despite its frayed cuffs.
Many things changed when my family moved to Alabama. I’d lived there briefly as a child, back when I was even younger and less aware of the prejudices and boundaries that governed my surroundings. It was a shock, then, to enroll in Tuscaloosa’s Central High School, a massive institution hosting some two thousand students on two different campuses. Each campus had security guards and metal detectors. My building, Central East, housed junior and seniors; the security guard’s name was Jerome. At lunch time, the vice principal would shout at students to Take a seat! and remind us, still shouting, that we had two minutes—an all-purpose phrase that he used to enforce how long students could remain standing (to throw out trash, get their food, or walk to their seat—the only acceptable options, it seemed) and to warn us of the impending bell. After the first week or two, I started eating lunch in the library with a friend.
Each fall, all of Central’s English teachers administered the same graded assignment: every student had to recite or write out the school’s alma mater. Now I understand that it was meant to instill school pride, to unify a diverse and historically divided student population. But then, I hated it, hated the rote memorization, hated what felt like a forced allegiance to an institution that seemed to me, who had no experience with actual confinement, like a prison. It was the only assignment I ever refused to attempt. By senior year, I knew every word of the song (My loyalty to you will never die…my peers recited, one by one), but I refused to utter any of them. I like to imagine I wore the sweatshirt from my Knoxville school on recitation day—it sounds like something I’d have done—but I don’t actually remember if that’s true.
Central existed for a very specific reason: its two-campus structure forced every single student in the city school system into the same school, a move made necessary by Tuscaloosa’s refusal to embrace integration. In the 1970s, a federal court order closed the city’s two existing high schools—one black, one white—and reopened them as a single institution. Many white families sent their children to private schools initially, but by the time I arrived, the town’s private academies were sparsely populated. My class was 70 percent African American, 30 percent white.
Today I say this with pride: I went to school with every public school student in my city. Central alums—black and white—have become professional athletes, clerked in the Supreme Court, graduated from Ivy League medical schools, served on nonprofit boards and political campaigns. They’ve also been fired from jobs, committed crimes, been incarcerated, and died tragically. And while I’m not grateful that some of my peers endured bad things, I’m grateful that my peer group isn’t isolated, for the fact that as a collective, we offer a multi-faceted representation of our city, its potential, and its problems.
But at sixteen, I didn’t think much about the school’s population, origins, or significance. I simply saw the rules, heard the yelling, and felt much less trusted than I had in Knoxville. Then I thought it was a case of overzealous administrators getting too wrapped up in their own power. Now, though, I look through the lens of history and realize how tenuous a peace we held, there in our classrooms and corridors. On the surface, Central did the same work as the schools it replaced; it offered all the basic courses and expanded over time to accommodate programs such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. But it also did something its predecessors never had: it put us all in the same space, and it taught us to live there peaceably.
At Central, I enrolled in a three-course interdisciplinary program called American Studies. Each morning after homeroom, the AS students boarded a school bus and rode a mile or two to yet another campus, a historical building that had housed the city jail during the nineteenth century. We joked sometimes about being at a literal jail for those morning classes, but really the program gave us the sort of freedom I’d come to expect in Knoxville. Sometimes the class strolled across the street to work in the park; other days, we took walks around the neighborhood, talking about architecture or botany.
Much of the work was project-based, and I completed individual in-depth studies of the Temperance Movement, Prohibition, and its repeal. One project arranged us in groups to study specific decades. Each student interviewed someone alive during the assigned decade, then the students in each group would compile their material and compose a script for a skit that represented that decade. Now that I’ve spent years working in education, I know the assignment was pedagogically sound—it connected us with members of our community from other generations, and it taught us about primary sources, summary, paraphrasing, and how to use historical material. And, because we were teenagers assigned to work together, it was also complicated in the way that most group projects are complicated: much of the work fell to a few of the members.
I knew few people in town, so I interviewed a family friend who’d been a fairly typical middle-class housewife and mother during the 1950s, my assigned decade. We spoke for an hour or two, and my primary memory of the experience is her fear of polio and how no one would let their children use swimming pools for fear of contagion. Eventually, I had enough material recorded, and I later transcribed it by hand as part of the assignment.
Each student was to follow the same procedure, but when my group met to write the script representing our decade, few people brought material. Another student and I agreed to compose a script for the group, working over a weekend to draw out all we could from the interviews he and I had done. When we returned on Monday, I felt pretty proud of our work. We’d included Elvis and Ed Sullivan, I like Ike references, hula hoops and poodle skirts, and even a discussion of the polio vaccine to appease our science requirement.
Our group read over the script, then rebelled. This is all white people! one African American group member exclaimed. Another was more blunt, levelling the word racist. I was stunned, then angry, protesting that no other group members, black or white, had given us material, so we’d used what we had. I wasn’t alive in the 1950s! I said. How am I supposed to know what happened unless it’s on the transcripts?
It was simultaneously a reasonable response—the assignment hadn’t allowed us to use research outside the interview transcripts—and, I came to see eventually, a completely inadequate response. I imagine that two decades earlier, my group might have splintered, arranged some sort of accommodation whereby we didn’t actually have to work together. But there in 1993, it went differently. I was angry, but knew enough not to yell back. I stepped onto the jail’s porch, aware that I wanted out of the situation but worried about leaving campus without permission. (I was that kind of student, conscientious, careful, largely rule abiding. In my entire academic career, I never skipped a class, though I routinely bailed on the weekly pep rallies held before each football game. Jerome the security guard knew, I’m sure, but he never reported me—I imagine he was either amused by the weird girl who went to calculus but skipped the fun things or else just felt sorry for me, mistaking my apathy for the behavior of an outcast.) Eventually, I went back into the old jail. My group met calmly—with teacher supervision, I think—and agreed that I’d receive necessary material from others and rewrite the script.
I suppose there’s a version of this story in which I proudly report all the significant events I learned about African American experiences in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the 1950s. I’ve learned, and retained, plenty of facts concerning my town’s segregation and civil rights history since that time. But I can’t trace a single fact to that decades project. Here’s what I did take away from that day: the knowledge that other stories than mine always exist, and that it’s up to me to make a space for them.
In 2010, from my home in Virginia, I called my brother Austin every day while he was in the psych ward. My family had advised that I not visit yet—Austin was often erratic, frequently unaware they were there or who they were. One night, they were waiting in the visitor’s room and saw Austin approach. He seemed calm initially, then shifted into delusion, growing violent. He attacked an orderly; several attendants finally subdued and sedated him. My family watched it all, but they were otherwise unable to see my brother that day, or for the next several days, I think. I was in graduate school and living on an adjunct’s salary; my sister said I shouldn’t raid my savings account to buy a plane ticket for a visit that might not even occur.
So I called instead. Sometimes the conversations were brief; sometimes I wasn’t sure Austin knew who I was. The doctors had advised us to react neutrally to his delusions, not encouraging them but also not protesting too vehemently. Once, trying to proceed as normally as possible, I asked how he liked it there, if he had made any friends. (Now I see how ridiculous that question seems, but at the time, I was doing my best to instill normalcy.) He said simply, No. I’m not like these people. But he watched football games with them, and we talked about that, taking solace in the success of our team, how its players seemed invincible, able to run past or through any defensive linemen the opposing team sent against them.
Once, in the middle of a conversation about football, Austin interrupted me. I don’t know how to explain what happened to me, he said. 700 miles away, I stood very still in my living room, told him That’s okay. You don’t have to explain. He tried anyway, telling me a story about how he had been working with a covert branch of the government on developing new technology to protect special-ops forces in dire situations. They have to do all these things to try to break my body, he told me, but by studying the responses I have, they’re learning how to help everyone else. I’m really proud of that.
None of this was true. My brother had no involvement with military, law enforcement, or other such fields. Eventually the delusion stopped, and just as suddenly as he had started, he shifted back into football. Richardson might be just as good as Ingram, I think.
Here’s another part of this story, one I haven’t yet mentioned: three years earlier, my healthy and fully-functional brother had been hit head-on by a drunk driver. At the scene, the EMTs radioed the hospital, telling them they were bringing in a twenty-four-year-old male who’d had to be cut out of his vehicle with the Jaws of Life. He’s going to lose three of his limbs, they warned. Be ready. Their diagnosis was wrong, and doctors preserved Austin’s arms and legs. Through the course of the long night, they tallied up his injuries: broken limbs, fractured vertebrae, numerous cuts and bruises, substantial shards of glass embedded in his skin. But as dawn approached, we felt fortunate: he knew who he was, who we were, and basic facts about the world. He spent several nights in ICU, and he had a long physical recovery to face, but he seemed to have escaped major harm.
The years that followed taught us how naive we had been. Although there was no apparent brain damage from the wreck, over time Austin started to show signs of traumatic brain injury—the deep depression and violence that plague people with repeated concussions or head trauma. (Austin had endured several major concussions in childhood, both from sports injuries and accidents, such as the time he tried to steer his toy wagon down the neighborhood’s steepest hill.) He went through numerous surgeries over the next year, various attempts to reconstruct his broken body. He developed an addiction to pain killers, and he’d been tentatively diagnosed with depression and PTSD, though he didn’t return to any counselors long enough for an official diagnosis.
So that day as he spoke to me from the psych ward, I realized two things: a crucial part of the brother I loved was gone, subsumed by the delusions that now shaped his world. And this particular delusion indicated to me that some part of his brain was still trying to do what Joan Didion calls “tell[ing] ourselves stories in order to live”—Austin was creating a fictional narrative not only to explain his broken body, but to redeem it.
The only lies I ever told about my first love were to my mother. Mostly I lied about our relationship, pretending that he was not someone I loved. When I went away to college, she forbade me to visit him at his university. I never knew why—she literally had no other driving rules for me—and I didn’t ask. I simply met him elsewhere, a mountain town halfway between our schools. I visited his college only once, with my mother’s knowledge.
The first essay I ever published described the visit this way: The morning after the boy I loved told me he hated poetry, I threw mother’s untouched rum cake—his favorite—into the trash can outside his house and never saw him again.
It’s a different story than the one about our fathers. But it, too, is true.
Austin moved in time from the psych ward to a rehab facility. The staff there told my family about the psychiatric care he’d receive: for six months, he’d be evaluated, and at that point they would render an official diagnosis. They mentioned all the conditions we’d already heard, along with some new possibilities, including schizophrenia. They spoke of their excellent treatment record, the possibility that patients could reworld in healthy and productive ways. They also said that out of every group of patients they admitted, a few would not survive.
Austin was one of those few. In December, he overdosed. As a family, we disagree on whether or not this was intentional, and I suppose this, too, is a story—each of us left behind has to find an account we can live with. The facts are this: he overdosed on a Wednesday morning ten days before Christmas. On Friday, after doctors determined that he was brain dead, we took him off life support. My family surrounded him; I held his left hand. Even the nurses were crying.
At the funeral, someone told me, I hope this is the worst thing you ever have to go through, and so far, it has been. It’s trite to say that life goes on, but it’s also factual. After we buried my brother, Christmas arrived, and then each holiday and season in order, just as in every other year. That’s not to say they felt the same as before—even now, nearly four years later, I still sometimes think of the present as my post-Austin life—but they happened all the same.
Another seasonal ritual my husband and I shared in the post-Austin life was the search for new jobs, something common for many contingent (as I was) and untenured (as he was) faculty. Each time we were finalists for a position, we started assessing: could we live in this new place? Was the department healthy? Did we want these people as colleagues? What would our lives look like in the Pennsylvania mountains, the rural South? Once, when my husband made a campus visit to an institution in a popular town, I travelled with him to assess the area. My husband loved the school and its people. I knew in about an hour that I could not live in this town.
Each night we compared notes. I walked around town for six hours today, I’d say. I only saw eight African Americans. We started googling, eventually discovering that the city’s population was only 6 percent African American. I tried to present facts rather than state the conclusion I’d reached, but ultimately it became clear: this town with the lovely college and warm would-be colleagues, this town that many of our peers aspire to live in, that is a paragon of the eco-conscious, liberal lifestyle that I value in many ways, was so white that it made my skin crawl.
I didn’t talk about my feelings much. In a small way this was because we didn’t want to broadcast our perpetual job search; it’s not smart to tell your current employer that you’re looking for a new one. But the primary reason for my reticence was that I thought it sounded pious, judgmental to say what I really thought: moving to this town would, for me, feel immoral. I didn’t initially understand this: I’m not particularly active in race-based activism, and I could certainly do much more to act on my beliefs about community and inclusion. But the process made me return a lot to the old jail and the idea that I needed to put myself in places where I encountered the stories of people whose experiences differed radically from my own.
We ultimately stayed put, in a sense. My husband got tenure, and we bought a house—something I’d refused to consider sooner. But we didn’t stay in the town where we teach, moving instead to Richmond, Virginia, a city that’s recently been named one of the most segregated cities in America. The maps are clear: the west side consists of mostly-white suburbs; the east side is the one whites fled after desegregation. We didn’t know this before we moved, but we sensed it. Each weekend, we’d drive through the suburbs of the west end, and each weekend we’d refuse to commit to anything. Finally, we started going east, into the areas none of our friends or colleagues had mentioned.
We found Church Hill on a Friday night after work. It was springtime, and the front porches were dotted with people even late into the night. We knew immediately that it was our place. Some houses were grand and lovely, well out of our price range, while others exhibited various states of disrepair—some shabby, others missing a roof, uninhabitable. A recent census had reported the neighborhood’s population as 80 percent African American, noting additionally that most of the households in the neighborhood lacked automobiles, although public transportation is limited to an unreliable and erratic bus system. I learned eventually that the neighborhood was in a food desert, and then I learned what a food desert was. (It’s improved since we moved, but it’s still hard to find staples such as garlic nearby.)
I worry that this sounds too congratulatory, too self-satisfied. And sometimes I err that way, certainly. When we tell fellow Richmonders where we live, some light up, delighted, and we know we could befriend them. Others furrow their brows, and I know they are not my kind of people. Most at least attempt what they consider diplomatic responses, offering statements about how it’s nice people like you are moving back into that part of town. Others are less restrained, asking if we aren’t afraid to live there, afraid of being shot. I tell them, truthfully, that I’m not afraid and that I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the city. And sometimes my not-best-self leaves feeling superior to those people. Other times I worry about gentrification and displacement, worry that I’m part of the problem, too.
When we moved, my mother came to help us. We’d lived in Virginia for four years, but she had never visited before. We all wanted it to go well, so when she announced over breakfast that she was certain she’d heard gunshots the night before, I told her it was fireworks. It was Fourth of July week; she finally allowed herself to be convinced. Now, I know how to distinguish the sound of fireworks and gunshots, but I didn’t then, and I still don’t know if I told her the truth that morning.
The house we bought stands on the same street as the house where Jefferson Davis lived when Richmond was the Confederate capital. Our neighbors are black and white; they’re former professors and musicians, people working obscure corporate jobs and people living on disability. When friends visit, we explain the neighborhood’s history: the church of Church Hill is St. John’s Church, an Episcopal parish. Its first bishop baptized Pocahontas; its sanctuary is where Patrick Henry exclaimed Give me liberty or give me death! Three blocks away once stood one of the most successful, in terms of patient survival rate, Confederate hospitals (named, apparently because it was on a small hill, after Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in Ecuador); a few blocks from that, British explorers gazed out over the James River and decided to found a city, thereby ignoring the massive Powhatan tribe and its ancestral claims to the land.
In other words, we live on land that has been contested for centuries, land where people have died, have rebelled, have been healed and conquered and quelled. And that’s part of the reason I love it: every night as I walk the dog, I’m confronted with history, with the problems arising when one group of people decides it should have dominion over another. I haven’t figured out how to fix all those problems, but my life in Church Hill forces me to keep living with them—not as acceptance, but as reminder.
It would never have worked.
I believe this. But I believe this, too: even if he was not to be my final love, my first love deserved better, more than waking alone on the floor of his room, more than the dawning realization that I had not run out for coffee.
And so, some two decades too late, although I do not believe he will never read my words, I keep writing my way back to that room, revisiting, line after line, watching myself walk away.
In the interest of disclosure, let me be clear: intentionally living in an area with economic and racial diversity means pretty much nothing other than what it says: that I live in a place with economic and racial diversity. It opens me up to the possibility of greater understanding, but it doesn’t dictate it. And I’m still not always good at understanding or embracing the stories I want to learn.
This became clear in one of my classes last semester, when a poem in our course anthology referenced a film’s treatment of racism. I prepared for the class discussion, but I wasn’t familiar with the film, and reading about it was no substitute for actually watching it. I failed to adequately anticipate some of the comments my students ended up making about it. I knew the discussion went poorly; I felt uncomfortable with some of the interpretations students offered of the film—they said nothing overtly racist, but the undertone was problematic. (People like you moving back into that part of town echoed through my head.) Caught up in my own inadequacies (Why didn’t I make time to watch that film so I could talk about it authoritatively?) I failed to address things properly. I left class knowing I needed to do better, and in the next class I did. We regrouped, revisited, reassessed.
But one student, an African American, didn’t attend that next class because, I later learned, she was so alienated by the earlier one. She did eventually come back, and she did say that over the course of the following weeks, as we read more texts by African American poets, her alienation subsided some. I think that this is both good (we improved) and not okay (we needed such improvement); when I read the final reflective assignment in which she discussed all this, I found myself wishing the term weren’t over, that I had the opportunity to speak with her directly.
I wanted to tell her that she was right and that I was sorry. I wanted to thank her for telling me about her experience. I wanted to ask what I could have done to make it better, and I wanted to tell her how I had already thought about making it better. I wanted to tell her I was flawed and that I had failed and that I was sorry. I wanted to tell her that I believe that we’re responsible for what happens on our watch and that I’m sad that this happened on mine. Mostly, I wanted to speak with her, to exchange ideas with her, to have the chance to hear more.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get that chance; I don’t imagine this student would want to speak to me much, and I don’t blame her for that. But I plan to do better. I’m sure there will be times when I fail.
After Austin died, I realized my knowledge of him was finite, and I grew anxious to learn as much about him as I could, to fill in as many pieces as possible. I sought out his friends on social media, not to ask them questions about him, but just to add them to my network, as it were, as if they somehow made him more present.
I sought out people from my past, too, particularly all the friends I’d left in Knoxville. I hadn’t kept up with any of them past my first year of college, but I wanted to correct that. They knew me when I had a brother, I thought, and that felt crucial to me in ways I didn’t fully understand. I sent a flurry of friend requests, looking for nearly everyone I remembered. (I omitted the first love, though Facebook insistently pointed out that I might know him.) I’ve never talked to any of them about Austin, never asked them what they remember about him, but their presence, as it were, comforts me all the same.
That presence does something else, too: it reminds me of my own history. Once, I commented on an innocuous statement a Knoxville friend made, and she responded, calling me by a nickname I didn’t recognize and didn’t particularly like. I mentioned it, and she replied that she’d always called me that. I’m sure I forgot it out of dislike, but of course, my forgetting didn’t change the history. It just let me ignore the parts I didn’t want to confront.
I’ve only reconnected with one Knoxville friend in person, and it’s been an interesting process. In many lovely ways, we simply walked back into an easy friendship as if twenty years hadn’t elapsed. We did a quick run down of the essential moments, then moved forward. My husband and I see this friend every year or so, when we visit the restaurant where he’s a chef. I’ve eaten some of the best dishes of my life at his tables, but the loveliest part always arrives at the end of the meal, when the restaurant empties and my friend leaves the kitchen to sit with us.
Sometimes he mentions people from our collective past, and I think about interrupting. Whatever happened to ____ ? Did ____ care that I left? But he never mentions my first love (though I’m certain he knew my first love) and sometimes I wonder about that, too: is this silence because he knows nothing about what happened between us or because he knows everything?
Eighteen years have passed since I last saw or spoke to the first love, and sometimes I still wonder how much of the situation I misunderstood, misread. Someday, perhaps I’ll ask someone. Or perhaps I’ll continue to roam in the history I’ve settled on, the lines I’ve filled in.
It would never have worked. Never.
Here’s what I know: At sixteen, when I told him I was moving, he sobbed. At eighteen, he wrote that he loved me, and I did nothing. At nineteen, he told me he hated poetry, and I walked away, practically daring him to call. In every year since, he never has.
My mother’s visit to Virginia was two years ago; I really don’t know if she’ll return. I hope she will, and if she does, I know we will want it to go well. But I also know this: if she expresses anxiety about our neighborhood, I’ll tell her some things I do not think she will want to hear. I’ll tell her, truthfully, that there have been times in my life when I have been threatened with violence and that those threats have always come from middle-aged white men who are struggling to accept their waning power or dominion over what they consider to be their domain. Those threats come from men who are angry that they can’t have what they want the way they want it and who choose to manifest that anger by asserting their capacity to harm others.
I’ll tell her that I feel safer in my home on Church Hill than I have in many other homes. I’ll tell her that here, unlike other homes, I’ve never encountered a threat or weapon or sign of aggression.
And I’ll remind her that Austin, too, lived in a neighborhood marked by the threat of violence, and that those threats came not from others, but from him. I’ll remind her how lucky we were that he never harmed anyone—and how easily he could have done so. And I’ll remind her that I have seen the kind of darkness that leads to violence and harm, but that I’ve learned that it is a darkness born of things other than skin color. And I’ll say this not just because it’s true, but because it’s yet another story that matters, because in order to understand the stories of others, we have to understand our own truth, too.
Here’s what I know: my brother was often kind and generous, the high school kid who tossed his entire allowance in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmastime, the young adult who once sent some acquaintances from college a few thousand dollars because he’d heard that they’d lost their jobs, the person who, while still in the ER, told us that he wanted to buy all his new medical equipment (the wheelchair I struggled to maneuver, the neck brace he refused to wear regularly, the slings and crutches and other paraphernalia he accumulated in the months of recovery) from a woman he’d once met who’d told him about the difficulties of running her small medical supply shop in the face of conglomerates with hospital contracts. He loved children, animals, and the idea of family.
He was also an addict who was not always able to control his violent temper, a former athlete who could not accept that his body would never be the same as it was prior to the accident. He did a great deal of harm to himself, and I believe he could have done much more harm than that. I’m grateful he didn’t, that on the Saturday morning when he threatened to do so, the police arrived to take him away calmly. And I’m deeply grateful for this fact I once accepted so causally, a kindness not accorded to many young men in this country: when the police arrived, they decided that my brother was someone who should be taken away calmly.
That choice didn’t save him. But it allowed me to see him once more. It meant that he did not die alone in his front yard but with someone who loved him holding his hand. I know intellectually that he did not know we were there. I believe it matters anyway.
I tell my creative writing students not to send work out immediately, to let it sit and season, to come back to it with fresh eyes. And I have done that with this essay, returning to it for months, each time with new griefs and new names—a litany of small towns, of errant police officers and the boys they have murdered, of grace-filled parents and inept politicians.
And each time I return to this story—my brother’s and mine—I think increasingly about how it is wrapped up in the story our nation tells about itself and its people. And I confront another internal litany—one telling me that I should stay quiet, that I don’t know anything about these big issues, that I have no answers, that’s all too easy for me to feel self-congratulatory or to watch the news and grow indignant and forget that I, too, have failed.
But there’s a louder refrain I’ve lived with all these months, one that follows I, too, have failed; this is my fault, too.
It replies, Yes. Say precisely that.
Elizabeth Wade holds degrees from Davidson College and the University of Alabama. She divides her time between Virginia (where she teaches literature and writing classes at the University of Mary Washington) and New York (where she works in curriculum development). Her work has appeared in such journals as Kenyon Review Online, AGNI, The Oxford American, and others.